Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

sino   Tue Apr 08, 2008 9:31 am GMT
Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard
by David Moser
University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies

The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, "Hard for whom?" A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the "terrible twos", it's Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by "hard"? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me -- and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese.
From Schriftfestschrift: Essays on Writing and Language in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday (Sino-Platonic Papers No. 27, August 1991), edited by Victor H. Mair

If this were as far as I went, my statement would be a pretty empty one. Of course Chinese is hard for me. After all, any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language you're coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I'm contending is that Chinese is hard compared to ... well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it's also hard in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people.1

If you don't believe this, just ask a Chinese person. Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth. (Many are even proud of this, in the same way some New Yorkers are actually proud of living in the most unlivable city in America.) Maybe all Chinese people deserve a medal just for being born Chinese. At any rate, they generally become aware at some point of the Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners huffing and puffing up the steep slopes.

Everyone's heard the supposed fact that if you take the English idiom "It's Greek to me" and search for equivalent idioms in all the world's languages to arrive at a consensus as to which language is the hardest, the results of such a linguistic survey is that Chinese easily wins as the canonical incomprehensible language. (For example, the French have the expression "C'est du chinois", "It's Chinese", i.e., "It's incomprehensible". Other languages have similar sayings.) So then the question arises: What do the Chinese themselves consider to be an impossibly hard language? You then look for the corresponding phrase in Chinese, and you find Gēn tiānshū yyàng 跟天书一样 meaning "It's like heavenly script."

There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves "Why in the world am I doing this?" Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say "I've come this far -- I can't stop now" will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

Okay, having explained a bit of what I mean by the word, I return to my original question: Why is Chinese so damn hard?
(to be continued)

************For the complete essay, pls refer to:**************
http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html
Xie   Tue Apr 08, 2008 10:08 am GMT
Whenever value judgment is introduced in an article about topics like languages, this article would, imo, almost certainly become one that 像天書一樣, and 像天書一樣 difficult to "argue" against it since it is intended to intimidate everybody - the foreigners from learning it and I from teaching it.
Guest   Tue Apr 08, 2008 12:22 pm GMT
If you start off with English as your native language, I think learning anything else is going to be really tough. The simplicity and lack of troublesome aspects (other than spelling) in English spoils you, so you're turned off by all the messiness and complexity found in just about every other language: tones, non-alphabetic writing systems, numerous noun cases, elaborate verb inflections, and other morphological complexity, agglutination/polysynthesis, clicks, pops, and other strange sounds, vowel harmony, ergativity, etc. etc.
Xie   Tue Apr 08, 2008 1:47 pm GMT
>>non-alphabetic writing systems

I'm always facing non-phonemic writing as well, but I don't have lame excuses because I'm forced to and force myself to learn all that non-phonemic writing.
Guest   Tue Apr 08, 2008 2:52 pm GMT
Only Chinese writing system is hard.It takes al least 10 years for even chinese kids to learn and after that,they still have problem with reading and writing a long the way.I believe this is one of the reasons China is still a poor country because its 1.3 billion people spend most of their time wrestling with their own language instead of creating and inventing.They have known the problem all along and tried to simplify the writing but I don't think it is enough.They should drop their writing altogether and use the alphabet instead.
Guest   Tue Apr 08, 2008 2:54 pm GMT
Even if they dropped the non-alphabetic writing, they'd still have tones, which are (supposedly) almost impossible for outsiders to learn.

In addition, isn't Chinese becoming highly inflected for case endings now?
Guest   Tue Apr 08, 2008 3:47 pm GMT
>>In addition, isn't Chinese becoming highly inflected for case endings now? <<

I thought Chinese had an even simpler grammar than English with virtually no morphological changes.

As for English having no diffciulties apart from spelling, have you ever heard the way many native German speakers mess up our tense and aspect system. That's because these things are much simpler in German.
Guest   Tue Apr 08, 2008 4:22 pm GMT
"If you start off with English as your native language, I think learning anything else is going to be really tough. The simplicity and lack of troublesome aspects (other than spelling) in English spoils you, so you're turned off by all the messiness and complexity found in just about every other language: tones, non-alphabetic writing systems, numerous noun cases, elaborate verb inflections, and other morphological complexity, agglutination/polysynthesis, clicks, pops, and other strange sounds, vowel harmony, ergativity, etc. etc."

>Oh please, copying your sentance, "If you start off with Spanish as your native language, I think learning anything else is going to be really tough"
Xie   Tue Apr 08, 2008 4:25 pm GMT
>>>They should drop their writing altogether and use the alphabet instead.

This is trollish.

While the French have c'est du chinois, we also have chicken guts, esp. for the Latin script.
Guest   Tue Apr 08, 2008 4:38 pm GMT
<<>Oh please, copying your sentance, "If you start off with Spanish as your native language, I think learning anything else is going to be really tough" >>

I'd think that learning something like Catalan, Portuguese, Galician, or even Italian wouldn't be too tough for a native Spanish speaker?

Of course, you can find other langauges where certain aspects are simpler than in English: spelling (many languages), verb aspects (German, apparently), noun plurals and possesives (Spanish), comparative and superlative adjective forms (Spanish), etc. But on the whole, isn't English the simplest and easiest of them all?
guest2   Tue Apr 08, 2008 4:52 pm GMT
My take on "damn hard" Chinese:

Written: Yes it's difficult, especially if you're trying to learn to speak at the same time. (Unlike native speakers, who are already fluent.) But not impossible, especially if you've already mastered some of the spoken language. According to statistics, you get about 97% understanding knowing the 2000 most frequent characters, and 99.2% understanding with 3000.

http://www.zein.se/patrick/3000en.html

If you concentrate on reading (and save writing for later), do the math--learning only 9 characters a day gives you over 3000 in a year. (Yes, you have to learn the combinations of characters that make words, but that is a lot more straightforward if you can already speak. And you don't have the problem of multiple pronunciations for most characters, like Japanese.) Here's the list:

http://www.zein.se/patrick/3000char.html

Spoken: In some ways, I found Chinese the EASIEST language to study. Yes, the tones take time to master. Yes, the vocabulary is totally different from European. Yes, speakers for different areas are often hard to understand. ("44" in Mandarin, "si she si", sounds like "si si si" in the mouths of many Taiwanese.) Etc., etc. But the grammar is so straightforward--with so little of what passes for grammar elsewhere, like changes for tense, person, case, gender, etc.--that once you get used to the word order (often like English!), it becomes mainly a matter of acquiring vocabulary.

So yes, it's a long road, but not impossible. If you really want "damn hard," try Russian. (Or Arabic, or Hungarian, or Lithuanian...)
K. T.   Tue Apr 08, 2008 5:50 pm GMT
Xie, is "C'est du Chinois." offensive to you? In English we sometimes say the same thing, although we usually say "It's Greek to me." Omniglot, a beautifully done website, gives many similar examples.

Basically this phrase indicates that one does not understand what is being said or sometimes this is said when looking at a text in one's own language.

"Honey, did you understand that mortgage document we signed?"
"Uh no, Baby, it was Greek to me too. Complete legal mumbo jumbo."

Usually we cite "Greek" or "Chinese", but "Spanish village" "Hebrew" "Javanese" and "Hindi" are other languages mentioned in similar expressions.
Guest   Tue Apr 08, 2008 6:42 pm GMT
"But on the whole, isn't English the simplest and easiest of them all?"

>>Not really, the only thing that English beats up the others is that there is no verb conjugation, that's it, but over all I'd say Spanish and English are pretty much equal.

>And I'm not being arrogant cuz I could find several documents stating that Spanish is easier than English but let's just say that they are both equally easy. ok?
wannabe morphologist   Tue Apr 08, 2008 9:28 pm GMT
<<but over all I'd say Spanish and English are pretty much equal. >>

Somewhere, I recall seeing a quantitative measure of overall morphological complexity. IIRC, English rated a 1.6 on this scale, and Spanish and French were 2+. Certain other languages were 3+, and Vietnamese was 1.06. (The actual complexity is 1 less than this rating, so Spanish morphology (something like 1.3) was perhaps twice as complex as English (0.6). Of course there's more to overall complexity than morphology, but clearly English Morphology was considerably simpler than Spanish.
JFK   Wed Apr 09, 2008 1:49 am GMT
every foreign language is hard,every native language is easy.